Some Words on Loving Shakespeare
by William A. Quayle
What a soul wants is to feel itself of service. Life's chances seem
drunk up like the dews from morning flowers in burning summer times.
To risk literary adventure after these centuries of thinking and saying
(and such thinking and such saying!), requires the audacity of a
simpleton or the boldness of the old discoverers. Every patch of
literary ground seems occupied, as those fertile valleys lifting from
sea-levels along a shining stream to the far hills and fair. So much
has been said on Shakespeare, and he has stung men to such profound and
fertile sayings, that to speak of him seems an impertinence. I have
never seen an essay on Shakespeare I have not run to read. Whoever
holds the cup, I will drain it dry, if filled with wine from this rare
vintage. Practically all our great writers have dreamed of him, and
told their dreams; and many a writer who makes no claim to greatness
has done the same. Some people you can not keep your eyes off of; and
of these Shakespeare is one. Who has n't talked of him? When Alfred
Tennyson lay dying in the white moonlight, his son tells how he held
the play of Cymbeline in his dying hands, as was fitting, seeing he had
held it in his living hands through many golden years. Than this dying
tribute, Shakespeare never had more gracious compliment paid his
genius. Who passes Shakespeare in his library without a caress of eye
or hand? I would apologize if I were guilty of such a breach of
literary etiquette. Boswell's Johnson edited Shakespeare; and Charles
Lamb and Goethe and DeQuincey and Coleridge and Taine and Lowell and
Carlyle and Emerson have written of him, some of them greatly. I
wonder Macaulay kept hands from him, but probably because he was the
historian of action rather than letters; and after reading what these
have said, how can one be but silenced?
But it has seemed to me that, while there was a wilderness of writing
about Shakespeare as a genius and as a whole, there was co-operative
dearth of writings on the individual dramas. Authors content
themselves with writing on the dramatist, and neglect to write upon the
dramas. If this be true, may there not be an unoccupied plot of ground
where a late-comer may pitch tent, as under the hemlocks by some
babbling water, and feel himself in some real way proprietary? I have
discovered a growing feeling in my thought that enough has not been
said, and can not be said, about the Macbeths and Tempests and Lears
Shakespeare is too massive to be discussed in an hour. One essay will
not suffice for him. He is as a mountain, whose majesty and
multitudinous beauty, meaning, and magnitude and impress, must be
gotten by slow processes in journeying about it through many days. Who
sits under its pines at noon, lies beside its streams for rest, walks
under its lengthening shadows as under a cloud, and has listened to the
voices of its waterfalls, thrilling the night and calling to the
spacious firmament as if with intent to be heard "very far off," has
thus learned the mountain, vast of girth, kingly in altitude, perpetual
in sovereignty. We study a world's circumference by segments; nor let
us suppose we can do other by this cosmopolitan Shakespeare. He, so
far as touches our earth horizon, is ubiquitous. Looking at him
sum-totally, we feel his mass, and say we have looked upon majesty.
But as a mountain is, in circumference and altitude, always beckoning
us on, as if saying, "My summit is not far away, but near," and so
spurring our laggard steps to espouse the ascent, and toiling on, on,
still on, a little further—only a little further—till heart and flesh
all but fail and faint, but for the might of will, we fall to rise
again, and try once more, till we fall upon the summit, and lie on
thresholds leading to the stars. The mountain understated its
magnitude to us—not of intent, but in simple modesty. I think it did
not itself know its mass. Greatness has a subtle self-depreciation;
and we shall come to know our huge Shakespeare only by approaching him
on foot. He must be studied in fragments. His plays, if I may be
pardoned for coining a word, need not an omnigraph, but monographs.
Let Shakespeare be, and give eye and ear to his history, comedy,
tragedy; and when we have done with them, one by one, we shall discover
how the aggregated mass climbs taller than highest mountains. This
method, in tentative fashion, I propose to apply in some studies in
this volume, or other volumes, believing that the company of those who
love Shakespeare can never be large enough for his merits, and that
many are kept away from the witchery of him because they do not well
know the fine art of approaching him. I would, therefore, be a
doorkeeper, and throw some doors wide open, that men and women may
unhindered enter. This essay aims to stand as a porter at the gate.
We shall never overestimate Shakespeare, because we can not. Some men
and things lie beyond the danger of hyperbole. No exaggeration is
possible concerning them, seeing they transcend all dreams. Space can
not be conceived by the most luxuriant imagination, holding, as it
does, all worlds, and capable of holding another universe besides, and
with room to spare. Clearly, we can not overestimate space. Thought
and vocabulary become bankrupt when they attempt this bewildering deed.
Genius is as immeasurable as space. Shakespeare can not be measured.
We can not go about him, since life fails, leaving the journey not
quite well begun. Yet may we attempt what can not be performed,
because each attempt makes us worthy, and we are measured, not by what
we achieve, but by what we attempt, as Lowell writes:
"Grandly begin! Though thou have time
But for one line, be that sublime:
Not failure, but low aim, is crime."
The eaglet's failure in attempted flight teaches him to outsoar clouds.
We are not so greatly concerned that we find the sources of the Nile as
that we search for them. In this lie our triumph and reward.
Besides all this, may there not be a place for more of what may be
named inspirational literature? Henry Van Dyke has coined a happy
phrase in giving title to his delightful volume on "The Poetry of
Tennyson," calling his papers "Essays in Vital Criticism." I like the
thought. Literature is life, always that, in so far as literature is
great; for literature tells our human story. Essayist, novelist, poet,
are all doing one thing, as are sculptor, painter, architect. Of
detail criticism ("dry-as-dust" criticism, to use Carlyle's term) there
is much, though none too much, which work requires scholarship and
painstaking, and is necessary. Malone is a requirement of
Shakespearean study. But, candidly, is verbal, textual criticism the
largest, truest criticism? Dust is not man, though man is dust. No
geologist's biography of the marble from Carrara, nor a biographer's
sketch of the sculptor, will explain the statue, nor do justice to the
artist's conception. I, for one, want to feel the poet's pulse-beat,
brain-beat, heart-beat. What does he mean? Let us catch this
speaker's words. What was that he said? Let me feel sure I have his
meaning. We may break a poem up into bits, like pieces of branches
picked up in a woodland path; but is this what the poet would have
desired? He takes lexicons and changes them into literatures, begins
with words, ends with poems. His art was synthetic. He was not a
crab, to move backward, but a man, to move forward; and his poetry is
not débris, like the broken branch, but is exquisite grace and moving
music. Tears come to us naturally, like rain to summer clouds, when we
have read his words. Much criticism is dry as desiccated foods, though
we can not believe this is the nobler criticism, since God's growing
fruit is his best fruit. A tree with climbing saps and tossing
branches, fertile in shade and sweet with music, is surely fairer and
truer than a dead, uprooted, prostrate, decaying trunk. This, then,
would I aspire humbly to do with Shakespeare or another, to help men to
his secret; for to admit men to any poet's provinces is nothing other
than to introduce them
"To the island valley of Avilion,
Where falls not hail nor rain nor any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns,
And bowery hollows crowned with summer seas."
There is no trace of exaggeration in saying: Many people frequent
theaters ostensibly for the purpose of understanding the great
dramatists, and, leading thereto, seeing noted tragedians act Lear,
Richard III, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and at the end of years of
attendance have no conception of these dramas as a whole. They had
heard one voice among the many; but when the many voices blended, what
all meant they can not begin to guess. What playgoer will give a valid
analysis of King Lear? Ask him, and his ideas will be chaotic as
clouds on a stormy night. Not even the elder Kean is the best
interpreter of Shakespeare; for the dramatist reserves that function to
himself—Shakespeare is his own best interpreter. Dream over his plays
by moonlit nights; pore over his pages till chilly skies grow gray with
dawn; read a play without rising from the ingratiating task, and you,
not a tragedian, will have a conception of the play. I will rather
risk getting at an understanding of beautiful, bewitching Rosalind by
reading and rereading "As You Like It," than by all theaters and
stage-scenes and players. A dramatist is his own best interpreter.
The most discerning critics of the great dramas are not theater-goers.
The theater runs to eyes; study runs to thought. In a theater the
actor thinks for us; in a study we think for ourselves. For
contemporaries of "The Letters of Junius" to attempt guessing who
Junius was, was plainly exhilarating as a walk at morning along a
country lane. To attempt the interpretation of a Shakespeare's tragedy
for yourself is no less so. Believe in your own capabilities, and test
your own powers. Conceive of Shakespeare's folk, not as dead and past,
but as living. These men and women, among whom we move, are those
among whom Shakespeare moved. Ages change customs and costumes, but
not characters. Bring Shakespeare down to now, and see how rational
his men and women become; and we, as central to his movement, may begin
to reckon on the periodicity of souls as of comets. I would have
people inherit Shakespeare as they inherit Newton's discoveries or
Columbus's new world.
And as we know, we shall learn to trust, Shakespeare. He is uniformly
truthful. He may sin against geographical veracity, as when he names
Bohemia a maritime province; or he may give Christian reasonings to
ancient heathen; but these are errata, not falsehoods; and besides,
these are mistakes of a colorist, or in background of figure-painting,
and do not touch the real province of the dramatist, whose office is
not to paint landscapes, but figures—and figures not of physique, but
of soul—the delineation of character being the dramatist's business.
Here is Shakespeare always accurate. To argue with him savors of
petulancy or childish ignorance or egotism. Some people ourselves have
met had no sense of character, as some have no sense of color. They do
not perceive logical continuity here, as in reasoning, but approach
each person as an isolated fact, whereas souls are a series—men
repeating men, women repeating women, in large measure, as a child
steps in his father's tracks across a field of snow in winter. Other
people seem intuitively to read character, being able to shut their
eyes and see more than others with eyes open, having a faculty for
practical psychology, which is little less than miracle, as in
Tennyson, who was not a man among men—being shy as a whip-poor-will,
seclusive as flowers which haunt the woodland shadows—yet those
reading him must know how accurately he reads the human heart; and his
characterization of Guinevere, Pelleas, Bedivere, Enid, the lover in
Maud, à Becket, the Princess, Philip, Enoch Arden, and Dora, are, in
"Perfect music unto noble words."
Some people are born to this profound insight as storm-petrels for the
seas, needing not to be tutored, and are as men and women to whom we
tell our secrets, scarce knowing why we do. But Shakespeare knows what
the sphinx thinks, if anybody does. His genius is penetrative as cold
midwinter entering every room, and making warmth shiver in ague fits.
I think Shakespeare never errs in his logical sequence in character.
He surprises us, seems unnatural to us, but because we have been
superficial observers; while genius will disclose those truths to which
we are blind. Recur to Ophelia, whom Goethe has discussed with such
insight. Ophelia is, to our eyes and ears, pure as air. We find no
fault in her. Certainly, from any standpoint, her conduct is
irreproachable; yet, surprisingly enough, when she becomes insane, she
sings tainted songs, and salacious suggestions are on her lips, which
in sane hours never uttered a syllable of such a sort. And Shakespeare
is wrong? No; follow him. Thoughts are like rooms when shutters are
closed and blinds down, and can not, therefore, be seen. We tell our
thoughts, or conceal them, according to our desire or secretiveness,
and speech may or may not be a full index to thought; and Shakespeare
would indicate that fair Ophelia, love-lorn and neglected; fair
Ophelia, whose words and conduct were unexceptional, even to the sharp
eyes of a precisian—fair Ophelia cherished thoughts not meet for
maidenhood, and in her heart toyed with voluptuousness. I know nothing
more accurate; and the penetration of this poet seems, for the moment,
something more than human. After a single example, such as adduced,
would not he be guilty of temerity who would question Shakespeare's
accuracy in character delineation? The sum of what has been said on
this point is, distrust yourself rather than Shakespeare; and when your
notions and his are not coincident, or when, more strongly stated, you
feel sure that here for once he is inaccurate, reckon that he is
profounder than you, and do you begin to seek for a hidden path as one
lost in a wilderness, when, in all probability, you will discover that
what you deemed inexact was in reality a profounder truth than had come
under your observation. Nor would a discussion of Shakespeare's
truthfulness be rounded out should his value as historian be omitted.
He is profoundest of philosophical historians, compelling the motives
in historic personages to disclose themselves, while, in the main, his
historical data are correct as understood in his day. He has not
juggled with facts, though in instances where he has taken liberty with
events he has, by such change in historic setting, made the main issues
more apparent. Some one has said that simply as historian of England
Shakespeare has done nobly by his country, which remark I, for one,
think accurate. Beginning with King John, he keeps the main channels
of English history to the birth of Elizabeth, where, in a spirit of
subtle courtesy, he makes the destination of his historical studies.
If the purpose of noble history be to make us understand men and,
consequently, measures, then is Shakespeare still the greatest English
historian. Richard III never becomes so understandable as in the
drama; and Henry IV is a figure clearly seen, as if he stood in the
sunlight before our eyes, so that any one conversant with these
history-plays is fortified against all stress in solid knowledge and
profound insight into turbulent eras of Anglo-Saxon history; for
Shakespeare has given us history carved in relief, as are the metopes
of the Parthenon. For knowledge psychologically and historically
accurate commend me to William Shakespeare, historian.
The lover is Shakespeare's main thesis; and his lovers—men and
women—never violate the proprieties of love. What his lovers do has
been done and will be done. Helena, in "All's Well that Ends Well," is
a true phase of womanhood; and in those days of the more general
infidelity and lordship of man, more common than now—though now this
picture is truthful—woman has a power of self-sacrifice and rigorous
self-denial when in love, which, as it is totally unconscious on her
part, is as totally inexplicable on our part. Life is not a condition
easily explained. The heart of simplest man or woman is a mystery,
compared with which the sphinx is an open secret. The vagaries of love
in life are the vagaries of love in Shakespeare. Life was his book,
which he knew by heart. Rosalind, in "As You Like It," is a portrait
both fair and accurate. We have seen Rosalind, and the sight of her
was good for the eyes. To read Shakespeare is to be told what we
ourselves have seen, we not recognizing the people we had met until he
whispers in our ears, "You have seen her and him;" whereat we answer,
"Yes, truly, so we have, though we did not know it till you told us."
Shakespeare is philosopher of both sexes, though this is not the rule,
as we will readily agree, thinking over the great portrait painters of
character. To state a single illustrative case: Hall Caine must be
allowed to have framed some mighty men, tragic, or melodramatic
sometimes, somber always, but men of bulk and character. Pete, in "The
Manxman," is a creation sufficient to make the artist conceiving him
immortal; and Red Jason is no less real, manly, mighty, self-mastering,
self-surrendering. Caine's men are giants; but his women do not
satisfy and seldom interest us, with an exception in a few cases—as
with Naomi in "The Scape Goat," and Greeba, wife of Michal Sunlocks;
though Naomi is little more than a figure seen at a doorway, standing
in the sun; for she has not forged a character up to the time when her
lover puts arm about her, as she droops above her dying father, when
his vast love would make him immortal for her sake. Glory Quayle is
interesting, but unsatisfactory. My belief is that Tolstoi has drawn
no man approaching his astonishing Anna Karenina. Shakespeare is
ambidexter here. All things are seemingly native to him; for he is
never at a loss. Not words, thoughts, dreams, images, music, fail him
for a moment even. Who found him feeling for a word? Did we not find
them ready at his hand as Ariel was ready to serve Prospero? Lear,
Prospero, Brutus, Cassius, Falstaff, Iago, Macbeth, Hamlet, are as
crowning creations as Cleopatra, Miranda, Lady Macbeth, Katharine the
Shrew, Imogen, or Cordelia. We know not which to choose, as one who
looks through a mountain vista to the sea, declaring each view fairer
than the last, yet knowing if he might choose any one for a perpetual
possession he could not make decision. We are incapable of choosing
between Shakespeare's men and his women.
Small volumes are best for reading Shakespeare, for this reason: In
large volumes the dramas get lost to your thought, as a nook of beauty
is apt to get lost in the abundant beauty of summer hills, solely
because there are so many; but when put into small volumes, each play
becomes individualized, made solitary, and stands out like a tree
growing in a wide field alone. Do not conceive of Shakespeare's plays
as marble column, pediment, frieze, metope, built into a Parthenon, but
conceive of each play as a Parthenon; for I think it certain each one
might have stood solitary on cape or hill, as those old Greeks built
temples to their tutelar deities. He wrote so much and so greatly as
to bewilder us, just as night does with her multitudinous stars. Who
maps the astral globe will divide his heavens into sections, so he may
chart his constellations. The like must be done with Shakespeare. A
great painting is always at more of an advantage in a room of its own
than in a gallery, since each picture is in a way a distraction,
stealing a trifle of beauty from its fellow, though adding nothing to
itself thereby. "Come," we say to a dear friend from whom we have been
parted for a long time, "come, let me have you alone," and you walk
across a field, and sit in the singing shadows of the pines—you
appropriate your friend. Do the same with a poem; for in such a
wilderness of beauty send majesty as Shakespeare's plays this need
becomes imperative. Pursuant to this suggestion, I recur to a previous
thought on Shakespearean criticism that, rich as it is, is defective in
this individualization—so much being written on the whole, so little
in comparison on the parts. Each drama fills our field of vision, and
justifies a dissertation. Each dialogue of Plato demands an essay by
Jowett. How well, then, may each dialogue of Shakespeare demand a
separate study! There is distinct gain in looking at a landscape from
a window, sitting a little back from the window-sill, the view being
thus framed as a picture, and the superfluous horizon cut off; and the
relevancies, as I may say, are included and the irrelevancies excluded;
for in looking at too much we are losers, not gainers, the eye failing
to catch the entirety of meaning. Here is the advantage of the
landscape painter, who seizes the view to which we should restrict our
eyes, bringing into compass of canvas what we should have brought into
compass of sky and scene, but did not. So these window views of
Shakespeare are what we greatly need now, and are what Hudson and Rolfe
and Ulrici and the various editors of note have given.
But after all, the best interpretation of a drama or any poem is to be
gained first hand, nothing being clearer than that every poem
challenges individual interpretation, as if saying, "What do you think
I mean?" There is too much knowing productions by proxy, of being
conversant with what every sort of body thinks about Hamlet, but
ourselves being a void so far as distinctively individual opinion goes.
A poem, like the Scriptures, is its own best interpreter; and there is
always scope for the personal equation in judging literature, because
criticism is empiricism in any case, being opinion set against opinion.
Different people think different things, and that is the end. Literary
criticism can never be an exact science, and everybody may have and
should have an opinion. Great productions have never had their meaning
exhausted, since meanings are an infinite series. So, to get an
interpretation of Cymbeline, say, get into the midst of the drama, as
if it were a stream and you a boatman in your boat. Commit you to the
drama's flood, omitting for a time what others have thought, and read
as if the poem were a fresh manuscript found by you, and read with such
avidity as scholars of the Renaissance knew when a palimpsest of
Tacitus or Theocritus was found. Let your imagination, as well as the
poet's, spread wings. Become creative yourself; for this is true: No
one can rightly conceive any work of imagination and be himself
unimaginative. Read and re-read, and at length, like the cliffs of
shore rising out of ocean mists, dim, but stable and increasingly
palpable, will come a scheme of meaning. Miss nothing. Let no beauty
elude you. Odors must not waste; we, in a spirit of lofty economy,
must inhale them. Watch the drift of verbal trifles; for Shakespeare
uses no superfluities. His meaning dominates his method; his
modulations are prophetic. See, therefore, that he does not elude you,
escaping at some path or shadow, but cling to his garments, however
swiftly he runs. Such study will bear fruit of sure triumph in your
conceiving a hidden import of a great drama. This method of
self-assertiveness in reading is logical and invigorating. Think as
well as be thought for.
Of all poets, Shakespeare is richest in the material of simile. He
thought in pictures, which is another way of saying he wooed
comparatives. Thought is inert; and he is greatest in expression who
can supply his thinking with ruddy blood, flush the pallid cheek, make
the dull eye bright, and make laughter run across the face like ripples
of sunshine across water touched by the wind. In Shakespeare's turn of
phrase and use of figure is a fertility of suggestion such as even
Dante can not approximate. He is unusual, which is a merit; for thus
is mind kept on the alert, like a sentinel fearing surprise. Of this
an essay might be filled with illustrations. He does not try to use
figures, but can not keep from using them. As stars flash into light,
so he flashes into metaphor, metonymy, trope, personification, or
simile. Because he sees everything, is he fertile in suggestion, and
his comparisons are numerous as his thoughts. See how his figures
multiply as you have seen foam-caps multiply on waves when the wind
rises on the sea!
"We burn daylight."
"Nay, the world 's my oyster,
Which I with sword shall open."
"I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted."
Was dukedom large enough."
"Into the eye and prospect of his soul."
"Make a swan-like end,
Fading in music."
"Those blessed candles of the night."
"The schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining, morning face."
"Like an unseasonable stormy day,
Which makes the silver rivers drown their shores."
"He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines."
"And must I ravel out
My weaved-up follies?"
"Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me
To this submission."
"The gaudy, babbling, and remorseless day
Is crept into the bosom of the sea."
"There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distill it out."
"He hath a tear for pity, and a hand
Open as day for melting charity."
"That daffed the world aside,
And bid it pass."
"He is come to ope
The purple testament of bleeding war."
"She sat, like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief."
"That strain again; it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet south,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor."
"For courage mounts with occasion."
"Here I and sorrows sit;
Here is my throne; bid kings come bow to it."
"Death's dateless night."
"Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man."
"The tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony."
"Falstaff sweats to death,
And lards the lean earth as he walks along."
"I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die."
"'T is better to be lowly born,
And range with humble livers in content,
Than be perked up in glistering grief,
And wear a golden sorrow."
"An old man broken with the storms of state."
"Care keeps his watch in every old man's eye."
"Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops."
"Within the book and volume of my brain."
"One vial full of Edward's blood is cracked,
And all the precious liquor spilt."
In such quest as this, one is enticed as if he followed the windings of
a stream under the shadows of the trees. Past waterfall and banks of
flowers and choiring of the birds, he goes on forever, except he force
himself to pause. Shakespeare is always an enticement, whose turns of
poetic thought and verbiage are a pure delight. Note this quality in
the quotations—a word naturally expresses a thought. Shakespeare's
figures express a series of thoughts as varied landscapes seen in
pictures; in consequence, to read him is to see resemblances in things,
because we have sharpened vision and can not, after reading him, be
blind as we were before, but feel the plethora of our world with the
poetic. After he has spoken for us and to us, the world's capacity is
enlarged; we are, in truth, not so much as those who have read poetry
as we are like those who have seen the world pass before our eyes. We
thought the world a stream run dry; but lo! the bed is full of waters,
flooded from remote hills, where snowdrifts melt and make perpetual
rivers. After hearing him, we expect things of our world; its
fertility seems so exhaustless.
Shakespeare has no hint of invalidism about him, but is the person, not
the picture, of perfect health. Not an intimation of the hypochondriac
nor of the convalescent do I find in him. He is healthy, and his voice
rings out like a bell on a frosty night. Take his hand, and you feel
shaking hands, not with Aesculapius, but with Health. To be ailing
when Shakespeare is about is an impertinence for which you feel
compelled to offer apology. Does not this express our feeling about
this poet? He is well, always well, and laughs at the notion of
sickness. He starts a-walking, and unconsciously runs, as a schoolboy
after school. His smile breaks into ringing laughter; and he, not you,
knows why he either smiles or laughs. He and sunlight seem close of
kin. A mountain is a challenge he never refuses, but scales it by
bounds, like a deer when pursued by the hunter and the hound. He is
not tonic, but bracing air and perfect health and youth, which makes
labor a holiday and care a jest. Shakespeare is never morose. Dante
is the picture of melancholy, Shakespeare the picture of resilient joy.
Tennyson beheld "three spirits, mad with joy, dash down upon a wayside
flower;" and our dramatist is like them. Life laughs on greeting him;
the grave grows dim to sight when he is near, and you see the deep sky
instead, and across it wheel wild birds in happy motion. In Tennyson
is perpetual melancholy—the mood and destiny of poetry, as I
suppose—but Shakespeare is not melancholy, nor does he know how to be.
His face is never sad, I think, and he is fonder of Jack Falstaff than
we are apt to suppose; for health riots in his blood. He weeps, smiles
breaking through his weeping, and he turns from the grave of tragedy
with laughter leaning from his eyes. Aeschylus is a poet whose face
was never lit even with the candle-light of smiles; but Shakespeare,
writer of tragedy, is our laughing poet. This plainly confounds our
philosophy of poetry, since humor is not poetry; but he binds humor to
his car as Achilles, Hector, and laughs at our upset philosophies,
crying: "This is my Lear, weep for him; this my Hamlet, break your
hearts for him; this my Desdemona, grow tender for her woe,—but
enough: this is my Rosalind and my Miranda, my Helena and Hermione, my
Orlando and Ferdinand, my Bassanio and Leontes; laugh with them"—and
you render swift obedience, saying, with Lord Boyet, in "Love's Labor
"O, I am stabbed with laughter!"
He is court jester, at whose quips the generations make merry. You can
not be somber nor sober long with him, though he is deep as seas, and
fathomless as air, and lonely as night, and sad betimes as autumn. He
is not frivolous, but is joyous. The bounding streams, the singing
trees, the leaping stags along the lake, the birds singing morning
awake,—Shakespeare incorporates all these in himself. He is what may
be named, in a spiritual sense, this world's animal delight in life.
There is a view of life sullen as November; and to be sympathetic with
this mood is to ruin life and put out all its lights. Shakespeare's
resiliency of spirit would teach us what a dispassionate study of our
own nature would have taught us, that to succumb to this gloom is not
natural; to feel the weight of burdens all the time would conduct to
insanity or death; therefore has God made bountiful provision against
such outcome in the lift of cloud and lightening of burden. We forget
sleep is God's rest-hour for spirit; and, besides, we read in God's
Book how, "at eventide, it shall be light," an expression at once of
exquisite poetry and acute observation. Our lives are healthy when
natural. The crude Byronic misanthropy, even though assumed, finds no
favor in Shakespeare's eyes.
Shakespeare is this world's poet—a truth hinted at before, but now
needing amplifying a trifle. There is in him this-worldliness, but not
other-worldliness, his characters not seeming to the full to have a
sense of the invisible world. He is love's poet. His lovers are
imperishable because real. He is love's laureate. Yet are his loves
of this world. True, there are spurts of flight, as of an eagle with
broken wing, when, as in Hamlet, he faults this world and aspires
skyward, yet does not lose sight of the earth, and, like the wounded
eagle in "Sohrab and Rustum," lies at last
"A heap of fluttering feathers."
Plainly, Shakespeare was a voyager in this world, and a discoverer,
sailing all seas and climbing tallest altitudes to their far summits;
but flight was not native to him, as if he had said:
"We have not wings, we can not soar;
But we have feet to scale, and climb."
I can not think him spiritual in the gracious sense. His contemporary,
Edmund Spenser, was spiritual, as even Milton was not. This world made
appeal to this poet of the Avon on the radiant earthly side; the very
clouds flamed with a glory borrowed from the sun as he looked on them.
His world was very fair. In more than a poetic sense was
"All the world a stage."
Life was a drama, hastening, shouting, exhilarating, turbulent, free,
roistering, but as triumphant as Elizabeth's fleet and God's stormy
waters were over Philip's great Armada. Hamlet was the terribly tragic
conception in Shakespeare because he was hopeless. Can you conceive
Shakespeare writing "In Memoriam?" Tennyson was pre-eminently
spiritual, and "In Memoriam" is his breath dimming the window-pane on
which he breathed. That was Tennyson's life, but was patently no brave
part of Shakespeare. He knew to shape tragedy, such as Romeo and
Juliet; but how to send abroad a cry like Enoch Arden's prayer lay not
in him. He compassed our world, but found no way to leave what proved
a waterlogged ship; and how to pilot to
"The undiscovered country, from whose bourne
No traveler returns,"
puzzles Shakespeare's will as it had Hamlet's.
So not even our great Shakespeare can monopolize life. Some landscapes
have not lain like a picture beneath his eyes; he did not exhaust
poetry nor life, and room is still left for
"New men, strange faces, other minds,"
"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."